The way the director James Conway sees it, Monteverdi’s last opera L’incoronazione di Poppea is about that most delicate of subjects, adult abuse by youngsters. That isn’t what he says in his programme note for his production at the Royal College of Music, where he claims that the opera is about power, ‘love, yes, but love’s power’. That is tendentious: you might as well say that Otello is about the power of jealousy, which is true, but that doesn’t make it ‘really’ about power; or that Wozzeck is about the power of powerlessness, etc. Poppea is about several things, power among them, but also love, jealousy, ambition, ruthlessness, the abuse of power.
In the second cast, which I saw, the central figure is very much Poppea, since she is played by Louise Alder, who will certainly become a major figure in opera if she projects as well in big houses as in the delightfully small Britten Theatre. She gives a consummate performance, and what she conveys is indeed disturbing: dressed as a Gretel figure in Act I, with a juvenating blonde wig and button shoes, she makes all the erotic pace with Nero, while never forgetting that she is just as eager to be Empress as she is to make love very often indeed. Early on, after Nero’s departure, she caresses a black pistol so lovingly that I thought it was a dildo, giving a new twist to Mae West’s celebrated remark about being pleased to see her. Her singing is ravishing, too, with a quality of both brightness and allure.
Unfortunately Rannveig Karadottir’s Nero is not on the same level. She is a reasonably commanding figure, but with an only moderately strong voice, which she doesn’t use to much expressive purpose. The opera is set, by the way, roughly in Stalin’s Russia, which isn’t in itself objectionable, but for all the sudden disappearances of innocent people, the intrigue, and so on, we don’t associate it with the kind of decadence and pervasive eroticism Monteverdi (or whoever wrote the opera) evokes. The fearful Soviet uniforms are effective, though they consort oddly with the three goddesses who launch the work — it’s notable that the only one who intervenes is Amor; she aborts the plot to murder Poppea, while Virtu and Fortuna never get a chance to intervene.
The other dominant presence in this production is Poppea’s spurned lover Ottone, played with marvellous intensity and unease by the African–American Tai Oney, possessor of an appealing countertenor voice and an equally expressive face. The final line in Act I, Ottone’s ‘I have Drusilla on my lips, but Poppea in my heart’, is the opera’s most poignant moment. The poor man has been trying to persuade himself for the previous ten minutes that he has Drusilla in both places, but he is evidently fighting a losing battle. The object of his would-be affections is Anna Anandarajah, who gives an acute performance, conveying both Drusilla’s sweetness and how irritating she is, going around saying she is happy. She makes a perfect foil for Poppea, who makes no bones about telling fate to be on her side.
In this scandalous opera — didn’t anyone at the time object, do people even now worry enough about its breezy amorality? — the moral centre is Seneca, and he is a platitudinous thunderer, appropriately dressed in this production like Solzhenitsyn, though he looks younger than that sage ever managed to. David Hansford has a true bass and booms effectively if not always with reliable pitch. Unfortunately, the scene in which he’s told to stop being a sententious windbag is cut, and we move on too soon to his death scene, in which his familiars beg him not to kill himself, celebrating the fragile joys of this life in some of Monteverdi’s most affecting music.
I was spoilt for that scene 50 years ago by Raymond Leppard’s version at Glyndebourne, still insufficiently celebrated for the fact that he gets Monteverdi’s tone so perfectly, whatever the excesses of the arrangement might be. We don’t hear nearly enough Monteverdi, but without Leppard we would hear far less. Fiona Mackenzie made an imposing and vengeful Ottavia, Simon Gilkes an excellently sung but vulgar and unfunny Arnalta. The omnicompetent Michael Rosewell conducts a small band with vigour if with too unvarying tempi.
The production, which will be one of English Touring Opera’s offerings next year, is severely cut. Scenes are pruned, some are omitted. The most startling cut is, of all things, the coronation of Poppea. I know it requires extra resources, but not to have it there at all is ridiculous, and certainly much lessens the swooning impact of the lovers’ final duet, ravishingly as it was sung. The least interesting part of the work musically is the plot to murder Poppea, but it’s hard to see how it can be more abbreviated. No more criticisms: this was a wonderful evening, and I hope that by this time next year the production will have created many more Poppea addicts.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 8 December 2012